Black East End activist remembered in new exhibition

A new exhibition of artwork on the life and work of Chris Braithwaite, also known as Chris Jones, will open on Thursday 5 October at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

Chris Braithwaite, a seaman originally from Barbados, moved to London and lived in Stepney in the 1930s,§ where he became a tireless campaigner for equal employment rights for dockers and seafarers from Britain’s colonies. He was also active in a number of political organisations. In 1935, Braithwaite founded the Colonial Seamen’s Association which lobbied against racism faced by Asian seamen as well as those from the Caribbean.

Inspired by Braithwaite’s work, London-based artist Basil Olton, also of Barbadian heritage, has created a number of new artworks in ceramics reflecting their shared concerns of imperialism and its impact on contemporary British society. The artwork includes clay sculptures as well as archives documenting Chris Braithwaite’s surveillance by the state which have been manipulated by the artist.

The exhibition will be on show free of charge to the public from 5 October until 20 January, thanks to grants from the Arts Council and the RMT (Rail and Maritime Trade Union) and will be hosted at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives on Bancroft Road, Mile End.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, said:

“Chris Braithwaite was an inspiring and revolutionary black socialist, trade unionist and political activist.

“The campaigning work that he carried out in the East End in between the wars had a profound effect on the working lives of dockers and seamen in the East End and beyond.

“So, it is fitting that this exhibition brings to life the work that he did and shines a light on a sometimes overlooked, but very important figure in our local history.”

A number of free public events have been organised to tie-in with the exhibition. These include history talks from Professor Hakim Adi and Dr Rob Waters as well as half-term creative workshops for families.

A free exhibition catalogue featuring essays and illustrations will also be available.

The funding means that there will be workshops for pupils at St Paul’s Way Trust school, as well as an arts programme devised by and for local BME young people organised by Mile End Community Project.

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“We’re proud to be associated with this important memorial for a genuine working class hero, especially in our time of political instability.

“Chris Braithwaite’s legacy of political and industrial activism in the face of overt racism and prejudice should be on the national curriculum and both Tower Hamlets Council and Basil Olton are to be congratulated on their work to bring this memorial and exhibition about.

“When we look at the practice of nationality based pay discrimination in today’s shipping industry, all unions who organise seafarers and dockers have lessons to learn from Chris Braithwaite’s example of steadfast and effective campaigning to end long established employment practices that exploit and discriminate against workers to increase owners’ profits.”

The exhibition launch event takes place on Thursday 5 October from 6.15-7.30pm and is open to the public. The full programme of events can be viewed online at ideastore local history.

– Press realise


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